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San Francisco Zoo: Introduction to Wildlife Photography Workshop - August 12th, 2012

Wildlife Photography Workshop Students with Aperture Academy at the San Francisco Zoo

On a very cool and typically overcast summer Sunday morning in the Bay Area, a group of eleven happy and eager photographers gathered at the San Francisco Zoo for an introduction to wildlife photography. The weather was regarded as a plus for Aperture Academy instructors, Ellie Stone and Jean Day, as the even lighting from the fog would make for ideal shooting conditions, and the animals would likely be more active throughout the day.

The San Francisco Zoo is a great way to introduce students to wildlife photography because of having a wide variety of beautiful creatures in settings that provide closer access to animals not easily encountered in the wild.

To insure giving their students the most in their workshop experience, Ellie and Jean began with introductions to learn their student's abilities and individual desires of what they wished to learn to improve their photography. Some were returning students from previous ApCad workshops, but also some new faces were welcomed and all were ready for a fun and productive day.

Students received a lot of individual instruction to get them comfortable using the many functions available on their particular cameras, so they were ready and eager to increase their skill levels.

Though aperture priority was used for most of the situations, the importance of using the histogram as a guide to check exposures was stressed, especially outside in brighter light where displays are not easily seen or may not be accurate. Helping students to take control of their ISO, apertures, white balance, and even continuous shooting functions is of utmost importance in achieving the best possible photos.

Our first stop was over at Grizzly Gulch, and we made it in time for the feeding of the bears, which is always of great interest to visitors, young and old. Two wonderful polar bears were out, and students learned to capture them as they lounged or lumbered. Some shooting through a chain link fence was required, but tips on DOF (depth of field) and manual focus with a longer focal length were given to achieve a more natural look in this circumstance.

Feeding the zoo's two female grizzlies happens in a separate playground for them, to hunt for fish in a large pond and discover apples and other vegetables around a rocky waterfall. A viewing area with large windows bordering the pond gives an up close and personal experience of this almost comedic activity as the bears happily romped and splashed as they sought out their lunch. After the general public moved on, ApCad students had time to continue shooting the bears' activities through the glass panels, which gave them a chance to learn to make adjustments in exposure with higher shutter speed and ISO to capture the action, and at angles to reduce the glare.

The enthusiastic photographers, happy with their own "catch" of the grizzlies, then spent time photographing a pair of bald eagles perched by a small lake, learning to capture the character and beauty of these birds with depth of field to allow isolation of the subject while reducing background distractions. From outdoors to indoors, the warmth of the tropical rainforest building gave our photographers opportunities to find and photograph birds and amphibians surrounded by lush foliage in more subdued light.

Following a lunch break at the Lemur Café, we visited the large male silverback gorilla who graced the crowd of onlookers with his regal presence. He was a special highlight of this trip. The big guy did not disappoint and provided ample opportunity for students to capture his large muscular frame and expressive facial features with a variety of poses. Every now and then, he would turn his head and look directly at the photographers causing a mass explosion of shutter noise as cameras clicked repeatedly. It's quite possible he knows he's the star attraction and even went over to a glass viewing area to peer back at the faces of small children on the other side.

Finally tired of the show, the silverback retired and students spent some time visiting the large cats which were sleeping outside in the cool air. This made photographing the lions a challenge, but the group learned to make use of the situation by zooming in to capture detail shots of their faces and large paws as they moved lazily and stretched in their leisure.

For the next stop, the prairie dogs and meerkats offered more unique shooting conditions, as they blended more into the background of their burrowed homes. In spite of its relative protection from outside dangers, one meerkat remained alert on top of his perch allowing for some intimate portrait shots of this adorable animal.

Following the prairie dogs and meerkats, we all posed for our customary and fun group photo, and then we headed for a final stop at Hawk Hill. Students photographed the nearly ten pound Eurasian Eagle Owl, and the infinitely smaller Barn Owl. Both unique in their coloring and in separate areas, it required constant adjustments for available light and separation of subject to background. A great photographic exercise. We were lucky enough that the White-faced Barn Owl was allowed to perch on his handler's arm, giving students the opportunity of close range shooting, getting more details of his unique face and soft feathers.

It was a fun and eventful day with a fantastic group of students willing to learn and take control of their photographic visions. Discovering more about their cameras and their preferred style of shooting, various lighting conditions, changing environments, and focusing in on the form and characteristics of uniquely different wildlife was challenging, but a lot of beautiful pictures were achieved by everyone! We are very pleased to have been the guides and instructors for this great group of eager students, and their introduction to wildlife photography.

Until next time,

Ellie, Jean and the Aperture Academy team

If you'd like to join us at one of our workshops, you can find the schedule/sign up here.

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